de facto film reviews 2 stars

PG-13 horror films often get a bad rap; many are front-loaded with awful tropes and cliches, but there are plenty of impressive vehicles for scares and meaning, too, particularly for younger moviegoers. The new Screen Gems supernatural screamer, Tarot, is much more of the former than the latter and sadly joins a 2024 theatrical horror slate that has proven to be wildly disappointing thus far (with some exceptions). Even its rather unique concept cannot save it from the banality of the writing, structure, and “horror” throughout.

Based on the book Horrorscope by Nicholas Adams, Tarot follows a group of college students who come across a strange deck of—you guessed it—tarot cards in the spooky mansion they are staying at. Resident astrologer Haley (Harriet Slater) reluctantly reads everybody’s horoscope using the eerie, hand-painted cards, and the group leaves thinking nothing of it. But this is a horror movie, so one by one, the friends’ horoscopes begin to come true in twisted and terrifying ways.

Tarot - Paxton

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The big idea is that you can not beat fate, a theme immediately eliciting thoughts of the Final Destination franchise, but that is where the comparisons end. Haley’s internal conflict with fate stems from her deceased mother’s battle with cancer, which drives her to overcome the curse of the tarot cards in whatever way possible. This story is ultimately incredibly straightforward, which is fine for the popcorn gateway horror flick that Tarot is, but it promises so much more. Haley’s grief plays a role in the film, but that is the extent of the friend group’s individual development. Each initial horoscope promises to explore what makes each person tick, but everybody, Haley included, is a very surface-level representation of their respective zodiac sign.

Jacob Batalon (Spider-Man: Homecoming) delivers the film’s standout performance as the wise-cracking Taurus, Paxton. Beyond that, the actors do little to make an impact, which further devalues the bland characters. Even more unfortunate than the lackluster story and characters, however, are the dialogue and scares. Some people joke about AI writing this script or that one, and while that may not be the case here, the characters’ conversations feel unnatural and cringe-inducing.

Tarot - Madeline

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

As for the horror elements, they are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, concept artist Trevor Henderson’s creature designs are incredibly cool. Brought to the screen by effects artist Dan Martin, the monsters representing different tarot cards are the film’s high point, all unique, creepy, and shocking. Under the veil of darkness, the tarot creatures are genuinely frightening. Sadly, first-time feature directors Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg do not know how to utilize their excellent villains effectively.

Each scare sequence, corresponding to a character’s horoscope, follows a near-identical structure. A character is alone in a dimly lit area when something flits across the screen. The industry-standard shrill demonic growl permeates through the stuffy air, and then a flash of the monster’s screaming face. A few moronic decisions later and some tragedy befalls the character(s). In Tarot, an unnatural urgency accompanies this tedious framework, practically removing necessary tension and suspense to keep the audience’s attention instead. At least, that is what this reviewer assumes the reasoning is, given the movie’s likely target audience of teenagers and young adults who may be newer to the horror genre.

Tarot - Haley

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

For its apparent target audience, Tarot is a worthwhile choice. At its best, it is a reasonably entertaining beginner horror that cuts the chaff in favor of attention-grabbing jump scares and plenty of hand-holding, which some viewers may appreciate. At its worst, however, the otherwise alluring package gets let down by an obnoxiously on-the-nose script, poorly executed scares, annoying characters, and a pretty run-of-the-mill story that will make even moderately seasoned horror fans roll their eyes.

Tarot is now playing in theaters nationwide.